Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
This Side Up by Richard McGuire
I was surprised to find a story from Haruki Murakami in the June fiction issue of the New Yorker since the magazine had previously published a story of his, With the Beatles, back in February. No complaints from me though; Murakami is always a treasure to read.
Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey is much more whimsical than With the Beatles. As the title implies, it’s about a talking monkey and the difficulties of a life surrounded by humans.
In rural Japan, a traveler comes across a small, rundown inn. Since all the other inns in the area are already filled up, he decides to stay the night.
I was traveling around, wherever the spirit led me, and it was already past 7p.m. when I arrived at the hot-springs town and got off the train. Autumn was nearly over, the sun had long since set, and the place was enveloped in that special navy-blue darkness particular to mountainous areas. A cold, biting wind blew down from the peaks, sending fist-size leaves rustling along the street.
He finds the inn unkempt and raggedy, but that its public baths are nice. More importantly, there is nobody else around, so the traveler enjoys the solitude.
The doors to the baths open and a monkey strolls through. He greets the traveler and offers to scrub the his back, all in flawless, human language
“Yes, thanks,” I replied. It wasn’t as if I’d been sitting there hoping that someone would come and scrub my back, but if I turned him down I was afraid he might think I was opposed to having a monkey do it.
It takes a moment for the traveler to wrap his head around a speaking monkey. But once he does, he asks about the monkey’s background. The monkey was raised by humans and taught to speak human language. When his caregivers passed away, he had to go off and find a new life for himself.
He tried to live with other primates, but couldn’t fit in. He was too human-like. So, he decided to live with humans. He bounced around looking for work. Nobody wanted to hire him, until he came across this rundown in.
“They’ve been kind enough to let me work here. The larger, more upscale inns would never hire a monkey. But they’re always shorthanded around here and, if you can make yourself useful, they don’t care if you’re a monkey or whatever. For a monkey, the pay is minimal, and they let me work only where I can stay mostly out of sight straightening up the bath area, cleaning, things of that sort. Most guests would be shocked if a monkey served them tea and so on. Working in the kitchen is out, too, since I’d run into issues with the food-sanitation law.”
The traveler invites the monkey up to his room, later, for beers. He asks him more about his past, which the monkey is happy to share. The monkey tells him that he can only love human females. This presents a problem, since he can’t fulfill his desires. So, he finds another method of fulfilling them.
“You may not believe me,” the monkey said. “You probably won’t believe me, I should say. But, from a certain point on, I started stealing the names of women I fell for.”
“Stealing their names?”
“Correct. I’m not sure why, but I seem to have been born with a special talent for it. If I feel like it, I can steal somebody’s name and make it my own.”
In order to “steal” their names, he has to steal a physical object with their names on it. He opts for women’s IDs. The women then can’t remember their own names. This satisfies the monkey’s desires. The traveler tries to understand how that works, and the monkey gives his view on love.
“I believe that love is the indispensable fuel for us to go on living. Someday that love may end. Or it may never amount to anything. But even if love fades away, even if it’s unrequited, you can still hold on to the memory of having loved someone., of having fallen in love with someone. And that’s a valuable source of warmth. Without that heat source, a person’s heart – and a monkey’s heart too – would turn into a bitterly cold, barren wasteland. A place where not a ray of sunlight falls, where the wildflowers of peace, the trees of hope, have no chance to grow.
The traveler leaves the hotel and later tries to figure out if the monkey was real or just his own imagination. He goes back to the city and tries to write about him, but fails.
…if I wrote about him as fiction the story would lack a clear focus or point. I could well imagine my editor looking puzzled and saying, “I hesitate to ask, since you’re the author, but what is the theme supposed to be?”
Theme? Can’t say there is one. It’s just about an old monkey who speaks human language, who scrubs guests’ backs in the hot springs in a tiny town in Gunma Prefecture, who enjoys cold beer, falls in love with human women, and steal their names. Where’s the theme of that? Or the moral?
The narration skips into the present day – years after his encounter with the monkey. The traveler comes across a colleague who can’t remember her name. He thinks back and asks her if she remembered anything being stolen around the time she forgot her name. She says her ID was taken from her purse, but nothing else.
Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey was an odd story. I won’t try to moralize, as Murakami makes it clear that maybe he’s not even sure what his intentions were here (if we assume he his speaking through the voice of the narrator).
We could imagine parallels between the monkey – outcast from human society – with people who are outcast from their own societies. I’m leaning towards agreeing with the narrator, though, that maybe there isn’t a real theme or moral.
Murakami has written, like always, an entertaining story that reflects on our emotions and how they are the fundamental reasons for our existence. Although I’d suggest picking up With the Beatles first, this is a good story that’s well worth the short read.